RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — A Palestinian Cabinet member died Wednesday after a scuffle with Israeli troops during a West Bank protest, and images of an Israeli officer grabbing the 55-year-old by the throat before he collapsed quickly stirred Palestinian anger at a time of badly strained relations with Israel.
An autopsy has yet to determine what killed Ziad Abu Ain, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called him the victim of a "clear crime" and a "barbaric act." He decreed three days of mourning for the minister, whose portfolio included organizing protests against Israeli settlements and the West Bank separation barrier.
The incident threatened to further inflame tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Calls grew for Abbas to suspend security coordination with Israel — a policy that has become the cornerstone of relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the absence of peace talks.
Abbas met with officials from his Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organization late Wednesday to consider a response and said all options were open.
In the session, Abbas held up a photo of the Israeli officer grabbing Abu Ain's throat. Palestinians circulated the photo on social media under the hashtag #ICantBreathe — drawing a link to the death of an unarmed black man after being placed into a chokehold by a white police officer in New York.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the military was ready to investigate the incident jointly with Palestinian officials, and an Israeli pathologist was to attend an autopsy, along with Palestinian and Jordanian doctors.
The United States called for a "swift, fair and transparent" inquiry into the incident. "At this difficult time, we continue to call on both sides to work to lower tensions and prevent an escalation of violence," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged restraint, amid fears the minister's death could lead to a further deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations, already at a low point after failed U.S.-led peace efforts.
Ban said he was "deeply saddened" by the death, while Mogherini said "reports of excessive use of force by Israeli security forces are extremely worrying."
The Israeli military said it was sending two battalions of soldiers and two companies of paramilitary border police to the West Bank as reinforcements.
The day's events began around mid-morning when several dozen Palestinians, including Abu Ain, marched from the West Bank village of Turmus Aya toward an unauthorized Israeli settlement outpost, Adei-Ad. They planned to plant olive tree saplings on land belonging to one of the villagers, who has repeatedly been barred from reaching his property by Israeli troops citing concern about frictions with the settlers, participants said.
Several dozen soldiers and members of the paramilitary border police blocked the marchers, firing tear gas and stun grenades, according to Palestinian witnesses and members of Yesh Din, an Israeli rights group that joined the protest.
Eventually, marchers and troops faced each other, scuffling and shouting.
Abu Ain, who was at the forefront of the group, told reporters: "We came to our Palestinian land to plant some olive trees and they attacked us immediately. No one threw a stone or attacked them, but this terrorist army is attacking us."
At one point a border policeman grabbed the Palestinian minister by the throat and pushed him, according to an Associated Press photographer. Other witnesses said a soldier also pushed a rifle butt into Abu Ain's chest.
Several minutes later, a pale-faced Abu Ain was seen sitting on the ground, then leaning back against a large rock, his right hand clutching his heart. A bystander tried to help him, patting his back and getting him to sit up, before Abu Ain slumped backward.
An aide, Abu Sassaka, said an Israeli soldier administered first aid to Abu Ain before protesters carried him away. An ambulance later took him to Ramallah Hospital and he died en route, Abu Sassaka said.
The Israeli daily Haaretz quoted relatives of Abu Ain as saying he suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure.
The Israeli military said that about 200 "rioters" had gathered in Turmus Aya and that troops prevented them from reaching Adei-Ad, using "riot dispersal means." That typically means tear gas and stun grenades.
Yesh Din, the Israeli rights group, said the Palestinian protest had been peaceful. An attorney for the group, Shlomy Zachary, "reported to a senior army official that IDF soldiers were exercising extensive force against Palestinian civilians without any justification," the group said.
Earlier Wednesday, Yesh Din appealed to Israel's Supreme Court on behalf of four villages surrounding Adei-Ad, demanding that the military enforce long-standing orders to dismantle such unauthorized settlements. Adei-Ad is one of dozens of such outposts set up by settlers across the West Bank without government authorization, though a number have been retroactively legalized.
The international community considers all settlements, including those sanctioned by the government, to be illegal. The settlements are built on occupied lands the Palestinian seek for a future state.
Meanwhile, a Palestinian activist said he hoped the #ICantBreathe hashtag would draw more attention to Abu Ain's death. "What is happening here is no different from the discrimination against blacks in America," said Mahmoud Hreidat.
Abu Ain headed a Palestinian Authority department dealing with Israeli settlements and the Israeli separation barrier, and had the rank of Cabinet member. Previously, he served as deputy minister for prisoner affairs.
A member of Abbas' Fatah movement, Abu Ain had spent several years in Israeli prisons. He was arrested in the United States in 1979 and extradited to Israel two years later, according to a nephew, Baha Abu Ain. In Israel, he was sentenced to life in prison for being a member of a cell that planted a bomb that killed two Israelis. Abu Ain was released in a 1985 prisoner swap.
During the second Palestinian uprising in 2002, he spent a year in administrative detention without trial or charges.